Rights to Dublin’s Public Transport Services up for Grabs

People don’t tend to get excited about transport nearly as much as they get annoyed by it. Generally if transport hits the headlines in Ireland it is about some megaproject proposal, such as Metro North or Dart Underground, and people divide into entrenched camps with conclusive evidence apparently both for and against.  Now an issue is hitting the desk of Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, that may have implications way more profound for the quality of our transport services than any of the big ticket, multi-billion euro schemes of the recent past.  And yet there is barely a whisper abroad about it.

One of the first significant actions by the National Transport Authority (NTA) was to issue Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann with five year contracts to run their existing services.  In 2014 these “direct award” contracts will run out.  To comply with tendering procedures and to allow a potential new operator or operators time to enter the market, the new contracts must be issued for tender at latest by October of this year.  Information about the Public Service Contracts is available at the NTA website (www.nationaltransport.ie).

It may come as a surprise to many Dubliners that the dominance of Dublin Bus in delivering services to the capital is up for consideration.  It is the clear workhorse of the transport market shifting 120 million people per annum on over 120 routes.  That is half of all public transport trips nationally and five times what the much-hyped LUAS carries.

In benchmarking tests undertaken, Dublin Bus has performed consistently well, often earning grudging respect from consultants hired in to investigate what could be done better or where the big savings could be made.   Its level of subvention is considered low and levels of service high in comparison to other European cities.  Recently, the city has seen Real Time Passenger Information appear on the streets and, with smart-phone apps at the ready, citizens can time their journey to the bus from their armchair or office desk, something that cannot be said for the streamlined LUAS.  Moreover, the roll-out of LEAP card integrated tickets to all Dublin Bus services went smoothly, with more functionality yet to be added.  So why fix something that appears to be not only working fairly well but generally improving?

The NTA is complying with EU directives in their actions and the thinking at the European level is that “controlled competition” is what is required to best deliver transport services to urban markets (the idea being that operators should have the opportunity to compete for the market as opposed to within the market).  In the UK the Thatcher administration introduced the “1985 Transport Act” in the belief that open, unfettered competition and private ownership would lead to bus services magically transformed. Instead service quality plummeted, as did patronage, and the scars of that big idea were such that practically no other city or country has ventured near.  Only London, which retained its route franchising model, escaped the inexorable deterioration in England’s bus services.

One of the fallacies in this kind of debate is the idea that “privatisation”, as an end in itself, will invisibly and inevitably stir improvement in the market.  In reality, there is no wholly private- or wholly public-transport market anywhere in the world.  Even the most centralised transport systems will outsource some services.  Berlin’s Transport Authority boasts about having over 40 “partners”, some of which are publicly owned, other’s privately owned.  Berliners don’t care about this.  What matters to the traveller in Berlin is that they buy one ticket from one Authority which can take them anywhere within an excellently planned network.  The critical element, it seems, is network regulation and the German cities, in particular, excel at this.

Urban public transport costs money.  But it is indispensible for bringing workers to work, providing universal social mobility and ensuring a clean, healthy environment.  Very few cities, save the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore, get away without substantial subventions.  Nirvana in this regard is perhaps Freiburg which recovers 90% of its costs from the fare box.  But the point about Freiburg is that its network is so well planned that virtually everybody has access to quality services.  And nearly 7 out of every 10 trips is by public transport.  Critically, Freiburg’s transport system, like Berlin’s and many other German cities, is highly accountable, being governed in a structured way by elected representatives.

So it is certainly no harm asking the question should Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann retain rights to operate their services.  If they prove good enough one hopes they should win them back.  But a bigger question is how do we plan a network that can provide quality access to all Dublin’s citizens.  In Freiburg’s experience, the better the network the bigger the savings.  And without improvements in network design, there are really not that many ways in which a new operator can trump an incumbent.

David O’Connor is Chairperson of the Spatial Planning Graduate Network and lectures in Transport and Urban Design at DIT Environment and Planning

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